Forty years ago, former NYPD detective Bob Leuci turned informant on his own squad to blow the lid off of New York City’s most corrupt police unit. As a member of the SIU narcotics squad, Leuci regularly observed his fellow officers taking bribes from dealers, pocketing drugs, and even reselling them, no different from the people they were supposed to be policing. His undercover work led to the indictment of 52 officers out of the 70-member SIU. Did that make him an American hero? Or the biggest rat in police history?
In Magnus Skatvold and Greg Mallozzi’s documentary, “Blue Code of Silence,” Leuci is portrayed as almost a paradox of a man. He was courageous in putting himself on the line, but cowardly in doing it to save his own neck. He cleansed the NYPD of its corruption, excavating every last bit of rot, yet he had been crooked himself, as complicit as the people he was turning over. The documentary shatters the binary concept of good and evil. Leuci was neither, and both. In a sense, he’s a one-man microcosm of the police system as a whole.
Today, law enforcement not only remains under scrutiny but has become one of the most divisive issues in America, complete with slogans that signify the fervor of each side. Though Leuci’s story pinpoints a very different moment in time culturally and socioeconomically, it feels as relevant as ever. Because policing is still one of America’s biggest controversies, and no one should be surprised if another Bob Leuci were to step forward. Regardless of how you view the man, Leuci’s story should endure as a reminder that police aren’t invincible.
Topic sat down with director Magnus Skatvold to talk about the film, his unique vantage point as a Norwegian, his personal relationship with Leuci, and what he hopes Leuci would have felt watching his own story.
1. How did this project start?
This project started over 10 years ago when I moved to NYC as a student in 2009. During a vacation with Greg Mallozzi (co-director) Alex Fraioli (co-producer) in Rhode Island, I met Bob Leuci at a barbecue. The retired policeman was the center of attention as he sat and told old stories from his life as a policeman.
I was quickly fascinated by him and we connected from the first moment. I could not forget him from that meeting, so I bought a book about him and saw the movie “Prince of the City,” which is based on Bob's life. I couldn't believe that this really was the same grandfather I had met at this BBQ. After a few years, I returned to Rhode Island to visit my friends and met Bob several times. In 2014, I decided to ask him straight out if he wanted to sit down and do an interview with me. The ball started rolling from there.
2. One of the main takeaways from this film is that police corruption is as old as time. However, the timing of its release is still remarkable, as we’re currently in a political and social climate in which “Defund the police” is a dominant rally cry. How do you think—or hope—this film will impact the current narrative?
Although the police corruption in today's America is not as open and systematic as in the ‘70s, the misuse of power has tragically become more relevant in recent years. As we were working on the film we saw the political landscape changing in the US and around the world.
We also saw polarizing aftermath after the killing of George Floyd and several other police killings. We focused on not bringing more wood to that fire, but instead tried to have a nuanced and human look at the dilemmas cops are faced with on a daily basis. The political situation got increasingly relevant as we were making this film, but we chose not to focus on it directly in our story. Since the audience will bring this modern backdrop with them viewing the film.
Today we see a lot of the same mechanisms that relate to “the code of silence” and brotherhood within the police. I hope this film could be a voice in that debate. Our message is that we have to take care of our whistleblowers. No matter what wrongdoings they have been a part of in the past.
3. The film is careful not to judge Bob Leuci for his actions and paints both sides with equal strokes: hero who blew the lid off of widespread corruption and rat who betrayed his own friends and colleagues to save his own skin. Why was it important for you to maintain this neutrality?
I felt a responsibility to maintain a certain neutrality for Leuci, especially since he has passed away, and could not defend himself. All of the accusations against him we had to back up with court documents, news from the time, etc.
It took a lot of time to persuade many of the characters to talk with us. Many were skeptical. His old colleagues thought that we would make a glorified film of a man many still despise, while the family was afraid that Bob would be painted in an awful way. After Leuci's death, there was also a battle over his legacy. I wanted to tell that story as balanced as possible. A central question for us was: why do we hate someone who obviously did the right thing, and what did Bob Leuci’s actions really change within the NYPD?
4. In a world where most people see good and evil, how do you want Bob Leuci’s story to disrupt that binary vision?
The debate around police has a tendency to be very polarizing—on both sides. I wanted to show the more human side to a corrupt policeman. A man that is neither all good or all bad, but made choices with hard consequences both for himself and his colleagues.
Compared to many other well-known whistleblowers, such as Serpico or Snowden, Bob is very complex because he was part of the same corrupt environment he blew the whistle on.
He was charismatic, intellectual, and loved the attention. He wanted to be seen and loved, whether among criminal colleges, lawyers, or the press. His drive to be in the spotlight was also a reason why he chose to participate in the film as well. Still, in the interviews we did, there was always a layer of rationalization of his own actions. He said, "Yeah, we started stealing money and doing crime, but everyone was doing it!" In Leuci's view he was a product of his time. He just did what he was told.
5. How do you want current law enforcement officers to feel when watching this film?
Unfortunately I think many from Bob's generation have already made up their minds on who Bob Leuci was. Many will only see him as a rat—a man who gave up his partners to save his own skin. There are still now, 40 years after, hate forums online about Bob Leuci.
A lot has happened with awareness and culture within the police since the ‘70s, and I do think the newer generation of law enforcement will see Bob's story in a more nuanced way. Police here in Norway and Europe have also responded very well to the film. Many see and relate to the almost impossible dilemmas Bob Leuci had to face. We are now working with an anti-corruption organization in Europe to get the film screened for law enforcement. A testament that there is a lot to learn from Leuci’s story, not only in the US.
6. How would you want Bob to feel watching this film if he were alive today?
Right before he passed away I showed him a longer pilot with the material we had shot. I was very nervous, because people were talking badly about him. Leuci didn't focus on that at all. He was more concerned about how he looked on camera. Bob understood that not everyone was going to say nice things about him, so he actually had a nuanced understanding of how the film was going to be. He did not expect a glorified portrait of himself, so in the end I think Leuci would have liked the film.
7. Magnus, as a Norwegian and someone who grew up completely on the outside of this police culture in the US, how did that affect or shape your approach to this story?
I went into this project without a clear political agenda. I just saw a very intriguing story from the ‘70s that we wanted to revisit and set into a modern context. What does time do to the memories that the different characters have about the same events? Why have the polarizing views on Bob as a whistleblower just grown bigger over the years?
I think the outsider perspective has been helpful in revisiting this story, but the film itself is very much inspired by the American films and documentaries I used to watch growing up.
The fact that I didn't have much deep knowledge about US police culture challenged me to do deep research on the time and events, to educate myself. I was driven by curiosity and fascination over the stories these amazing characters wanted to share with me. I also guess my Scandinavian naiveness made me less dangerous, and made Bob and other characters open up to me.
8. You were also good friends with Bob. How did that influence your filmmaking?
I felt a responsibility to make a good, honest, and balanced portrait of a very complex man who certainly was not without weaknesses, but I think it is very difficult to directly hate or dislike him after watching the film. Because you see the human being behind the actions.
There have been several filmmakers approaching Leuci about a documentary. I think he was intrigued by an outsider, with not much knowledge or perhaps prejudices about him or that era of American history. Plus he wanted to control how his story was told. In the beginning, he probably considered me a slightly naive fan he could shape. But during the production he started trusting me to tell the story the way I envisioned it.
9. Did this documentary ultimately give him a sense of redemption and catharsis?
It had been many years since he had last talked about this part of his life. I think he wanted to say something about it with the perspective of a 70-year-old.
What did it cost Bob to betray his brotherhood? He was very traumatized by the experiences in the ‘70s; it had real consequences. Not only to the 50+ cops that got indicted, but also for himself. He and his family were put in life-threatening danger. A few of his best friends committed suicide. The resulting hatred against Leuci was not because of the corruption he took part of, but for breaking the police “code of silence.”
If he felt redemption, I don't know. But I do think it was good for him to talk about this again, on an almost therapeutic level.
10. The film really transports you back to the 1970s with its look and feel, but not all of the footage was archival. How did you shoot the film’s many reenactment scenes?
A big question going into this project is how we would take the audience back to the ‘70s visually. We first tried traditional reenactments shot on modern cameras, but soon found this too hard and expensive. To be honest it just looked cheesy. In the summer of 2018, we got an idea to film the reconstructed scenes with Super 8 cameras. We spent a week testing in NYC locations reminiscent of Bob Leuci's world in the ‘70s. We filmed old police stations, town halls in Manhattan, and even went up in a helicopter to get aerials of the city. The next summer we spent shooting with a bigger crew at locations in Rhode Island and New York. The result was fantastic, shooting on film gives us the feeling of being back in time. The handheld and more dirty expression gave the film the authenticity that it needed.
11. Is this subject matter something that you’re entrenched in now? There are always other corruptions to expose within this world. Do you have any plans to continue down this path and expand the investigation?
Many of the stories we have heard throughout these last six years could easily be continued to other documentaries. But after spending so much time in this world, it's good to have a break and focus on something else. But I hope to revisit some of this subject matter again.
Together with co-director Greg and producer Håvard Wettland Gossé, we have started a new project that revolves around a Cold War paranormal scientist. A completely different subject matter, but like with “Blue Code of Silence,” this is a story which has many different versions. I think we are intrigued with going into complex projects like this. Trying to solve a giant puzzle in a new creative way.
Watch “Blue Code of Silence” on Topic here.